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ABR Series: Manny's fortunate monsters (audio)

Feb. 18, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.
Updated Feb. 18, 2013 at 8:19 p.m.


Every year in late summer, the fish bobbed to the surface.

Thousands of them, mostly tilapia, pale green and gray, rotting in the sun.

Augustine, Auggie to his friends, got to feeling sick when this happened.

He couldn't fathom how the others could get used to the stench.

His father, Augustine Sr., an old-school Mexican from Guadalajara, who'd once crossed the border to El Paso just a few weeks after splitting his foot with an axe, went about in his usual silence as if the smell wasn't perceptible.

He didn't complain and he didn't like his children to complain, especially his only son, Auggie.

The problem was that Auggie couldn't stop his complaints.

He was a complainer by nature.

For him injustice was injustice, whether it came in the form of God's unbearable heat, which to him only confirmed God's hatred for him and his family, or whether it was a slight given a friend from someone in authority.

He wouldn't stand it.

Once when his teacher had slammed his friend Raul's head into the chalkboard because he couldn't diagram a sentence, Auggie found the woman's car in the parking lot of a Safeway and relieved himself on the cloth seats till they were soaked in his dark yellow piss.

He didn't tell Raul he'd righted the wrong, but whenever he saw the teacher in the hallway, he knew that she could still smell it.

The proof was in her eyes, the way she looked at all the brown students with evil suspicion.

The Salton Sea is the largest body of water in California.

From the Orocopia Mountains you can see the polluted New River emptying into the lake, the silent brown mountains surrounding the low saline sea, making a beautiful sight.

But you couldn't go down there.

It was forbidden.

It was the most polluted body of water in the United States, brimming with pesticides, chemicals from construction sites, and other poisons that had infested the water since anyone could remember.

But at least you could look at it.

This was something that Auggie enjoyed doing when he could get away on his own.

His parents lived in Mecca, in a small house, with a yard that because it was carefully tended, made the small shack look all the more shabby and dilapidated.

But as small as the house was, Augustine Sr., prided himself on welcoming relatives who were moving through the Coachella Valley following the grapes.

Chano, a cousin Auggie's age, was living with them that summer.

And he was curious about the fish kill. It wasn't enough to smell it, he wanted to see it.

Auggie warned him. "It'll make you want to throw up," he told him, but he agreed to take him as close as the small hills that overlooked the western part of the lake.

They set off in the morning because the smell wouldn't be as strong.

By noon, it would be overpowering.

The two boys rode their bikes down the farm roads that took them towards the wrinkled mountains overlooking the Salton Sea.

"We're getting closer. madre," his cousin cursed. "It does smell bad!"

They stood above the sea, almost a mile away, but even though the smell was potent and disgusting, Chano wanted to see the fish.

"Not even the dogs go down there," Auggie tried to argue, but his cousin was determined to get closer.

They rode down the trail, turning onto the winding dirt road that led to the water.

As they got closer, Auggie fought the urge to gag, his throat getting tighter and his eyes watering.

The wind blew the stench right into their faces, mixing with the dry desert dust, so that the boys had dirt tracks running down their eyes to their chins and ears.

It was as if their faces were being transformed into the dusty hills.

Auggie breathed out of his mouth, fighting hard to keep from letting the smell enter his nostrils.

The heat and dust combined to coat his tongue, and still the fetid air coated his throat and lungs, making its way down his stomach and intestines.

He was being polluted and he feared that now that the smell had invaded his body, that he would be unable to get rid of it.

The two boys rode side by side, approaching slowly.

About a hundred yards from the lake, the fish became clear in the glaring sunlight.

There were thousands and thousands, floating in a gray mass that, as the boys approached even closer, seemed to make up the entire contents of the Salton Sea itself.

It was a plague, something that only a biblical Pharaoh deserved.

A curse like weeping sores or the death of all un-anointed first-borns.

Chano finally gave into the smell and dropping to his knees vomited a dozen feet from the side of the lake.

"Okay," he said, the puke now mixed with the dust in the corners of his mouth. "You're right. Let's get out of here," and he turned to walk towards the bikes they'd laid a few dozen feet away.

But Auggie wanted to get closer.

He wanted to walk right up to the water.

To look into the thousands of decaying eyes, to look right into the death and pollution that he had until then only smelled.

Chano watched him silently from a hundred feet away.

Auggie was determined to keep his stomach, to walk to the edge and demand something.

But it was only a half-formed thought, more of an inarticulate hope born in an act of defiance.

The fish bobbed on their sides, their bloated bodies and eyes bursting in the furious heat.

Auggie's eyes watered and breathing through his mouth, he felt himself begin to heave.

But he hadn't eaten that morning and nothing came up except for a long stream of thick, yellow saliva.

Bending over, his hand on his knees, Auggie noticed that there was more than dead fish in the Salton Sea.

There were scores of dead birds, grebes and pelicans that had eaten the rotting flesh and died as well.

He seemed to be the only living thing on the shore.

He imagined a huge fish net dropping from the blue sky and clearing the filth from the water.

But he knew that even this miracle wouldn't have cleaned anything.

Here, death and contamination prevented the miraculous.

It was only beautiful when viewed from far, far away, from the safety of the high hills.

He turned and walked back to his cousin.

Chano sat on his bike, his face half covered by his T-shirt, impatiently holding Auggie's bike.

"Let's get the hell out of here already," he told him.

A few days later Chano's family left to go up north.

Wash as he might, Auggie still couldn't get the taste and smell of the dead fish out of his mouth.

When school started again a week later, he made his way to his new classroom.

It was hot, almost 120, and the air conditioning was not working well.

Inside the classroom, his fellow students sat motionless, staring listlessly in the heat, the salt of their sweat perched above their lips in miniscule bubbles.

At the desk was the teacher who'd thrown his friend against the chalkboard.

And it seemed to Auggie, that they were all of them, floating on the surface of something immense, something bottomless.

Something not even distance could make beautiful.

To the read the complete excerpt, read this story online at

ABR 2013 schedule:

Jess Walter - March 21

Walter is a journalist and novelist who specializes in true crime subjects, such as serial killings and the O.J. Simpson trial. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Spokane Spokesman-Review and Newsweek.

Cristina Garcia - April 11

Garcia is a distinguished journalist and fiction writer who has served as an important Cuban-American voice in American literature. She is a professor and chairwoman of creative writing at Texas State University.

Tim Z. Hernandez - April 25

Hernandez is a former painter who later shifted his career to writing and performance art. Hernandez's performances have been featured at the Getty Center, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Dixon Place NYC experimental theater and many other venues.


• WHAT: Manuel Martinez, American Book Review Spring Reading Series

• WHEN: Noon Thursday

• WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium, the University of Houston-Victoria, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

• COST: Free, open to the public

For novelist Manuel Luis Martinez, all roads lead to Texas.

Although he's lived in the Midwest for more than 20 years, Martinez's writing remains anchored in his home state.

The San Antonio native will read from his collection of stories at the University of Houston-Victoria Alcorn Auditorium at noon Thursday.

After being named the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellow by the Texas Institute of Letters, Martinez decided to take a break from his professorship at Ohio State University to live with his wife while she finishes up an internship at a children's hospital in Chicago.

"We love it; I love it," Martinez said. "I don't work, so you know."

With his free time, the novelist said he's been working on a book he hopes ends on a lighter note than the rest of his body of work.

The working title, "Fortunate Monster," is based on a biological term by Charles Darwin.

"It's really just about adaptation," Martinez said. "I'm trying to be optimistic in this novel. I tend to write things with a certain amount of darkness."

The author's first book was published when he was 21 years old after he made a move to the Midwest to pursue a ripened interest in writing.

"Crossing" was published in 1998 and follows the story of Latin Americans crossing the border illegally in a train boxcar.

The novel's protagonist, a 16-year-old Mexican named Luis, starts his journey with a group of ruffians and longtime border jumpers.

Toward the end of the novel, all but two of the travelers are left alive alongside rotting corpses and urine.

Elements of the Catholic rite of confession, light and dark theology from Martinez's own Protestant background and theatrical dialogue follow the characters on their journey north.

"There's definitely a lot of binary stuff, evil and dark and light, that never goes away," he said.

The author's second and more popular book, "Drift," published in 2003, was recognized by the American Library Association as one of the 100 Best Books of the Year in 2004.

His sophomore publication followed the life of a young, troubled man in search of his estranged mother in Los Angeles.

"I think I struck a chord in that book," Martinez said. "I still get letters and emails from young people about it. I think they relate that the protagonist is in a really chaotic, confusing, lonely place."

In "Fortunate Monster," Martinez said he hopes to incorporate parts of his own mother's life after the recent passing of her husband.

"Watching my mother go through that whole grieving process," Martinez said. "She was telling everybody that her life was over."

But after giving online dating a try, Martinez's mother started online dating and met a bodybuilding and motorcycle enthusiast.

"Now my mom's in the best shape of her life," Martinez said. "That got me to thinking about wanting to write about resilience."



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